Of “Statesmanship”

A far-flung colleague with some personal experience with Congress wrote the following:

“A statesman can get elected, but never re-elected. Much of the voting populace thinks it’s begging for a statesman, but what it really wants is Pontius Pilate. The impact of the ever increasing media and the various outlets for immediate and accessible communication have made statesmanship impossible. What allows for statesmanship is the desire of the voters to elect someone whom they trust to do the right thing on their behalf. In this day and age, virtually all of the voters think they know the right thing regardless of how this knowledge may have been acquired.”

To follow up on the point(s) a bit: the more confused voters are, then, by the process–lies, truthiness, spin. baiting, propaganda–the less likely they are to know who might have their genuine best interests in mind, and the less likely they are to identify correctly what their best interests are. In this regard, it is interesting to observe the reactions to the bombing of Libya. The reactions from politicians seem chiefly calculated; some may be “philosophical” or principled: hard to say. The reactions from common folk seem products of predispositions against or for intervention (in general) or against or for President Obama. One wonders how many of the reactions are based on a thorough calculation or consideration of “self-interest.”

My own “self-interest” in the political arena tends to include a desire for long-range planning–in matters of foreign policy, the revenue-side of the budget, the environment, land-use, energy (precisely how safe are the reactors–I mean really?), and so on. I’ve never been tempted to vote for a candidate (for example) because she or he might lower, raise, or leave alone my personal local, state, or federal taxes. I cite this example merely to demonstrate how flexible the “self” part of “self-interest” can be, not to suggest my way is correct.

The Oxford Dictionary online links statesman and statesmanship to the good or expert management of the state and its interests, but I think the terms have taken on a connotation that suggests the politician in question is acting with a bit more honor and a bit less personal calculation than does the usual politician.

Once in a meeting of our faculty, a good friend and colleague could have pressed for a vote that would have gone his way, but instead he chose not to press the issue and to let the issue be unresolved until the next meeting, when his side of the issue may well have not prevailed. A dean at the time remarked, “That’s very statesmanlike of you.” Just so. The friend and colleague was being fair-minded–another connotation of “statesman” and “statesmanship,” maybe.

The word “statesman,” by the way, goes all the way back to 1600–the first OED citation being from a play by Ben Johnson. Also of interest (to me) is that we the people haven’t quite yet found a non-sexist equivalent; “the language,” that protean force, hasn’t accepted “stateswoman” or “statesperson.” Something satisfactory, idiomatically, to our “ears” will come along.

But back to the original points from the far-flung colleague: politicians, their handlers, and the media have so confused most citizens that most citizens may not know what their long-term self-interest may really be–as condescending as that may sound. People really do vote against what reasonably seems to be their self-interest. At the same time, politicians seem so caught up in zero-sum games, posing, baiting, and playing to the base that an old-fashioned, even quaint, notion of “statesmanship” never occurs to them.

Was President Obama behaving in a statesmanlike way when he compromised on health-care? I don’t know, but at the moment I’m leaning 60% toward a “Yes.” What is far more interesting, even to me, than my opinion (or lack thereof) on this matter is that it is probably impossible to have this discussion with most citizens. Many progressives’ visceral response is that he “caved in” on the single-payer option and sucked up to large health-insurance companies. Many conservatives and other GOPers and apparently all of the “Tea Party” will have the visceral response that he let the federal government “take over” health-care. There just doesn’t seem even to be the elbow-room available to conduct the discussion.


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